There's no way to know exactly where the Orioles would be right now if Wei-Yin Chen had not felt that pop in his rib cage on May 12, but his performance Wednesday night should make everyone feel a lot better about where they might be at the end of the season.
Chen returned from the disabled list just in time to throw himself in front of a modest midseason slump that had knocked his team out out of the second American League wild-card position, holding the Texas Rangers to just three hits over seven innings to re-establish himself in the front half of the Orioles rotation.
How important was it?
Well, there's no way to really know that either, unless you've got a working crystal ball at home, but the Orioles have plugged so many holes in the pitching staff over the past three months that the re-emergence of their most consistent starter from 2012 should provide a major lift at an important juncture in the season.
The rap on the Orioles — if you listen to the SportsCenter types and the advance scouts — is that they lack that go-to starter to anchor the staff if they are fortunate enough to make a return trip to the postseason. It's a fair criticism, since they feature a collection of solid middle-rotation guys who have stepped up just enough to keep the club competitive in the tough AL East.
What you see is probably what you're going to get the rest of the way, as the Orioles don't appear likely to steal a No. 1 by the July 31 non-waiver trade deadline, but the return of a healthy and productive Chen will make it a lot easier to stick around for a late-summer run at the division title.
“We’ll see,’’ manager Buck Showalter said. “We feel like the five guys we’re going to run out there have the potential to give us a chance to win on the night’s they pitch ... guys with a track record who are going to not implode and they are going to give us some innings and stay in some games and keep us around. And Wei-Yin is a piece of that chain.”
Timing is everything, of course, and Chen couldn't have made his triumphant return at a better time unless it was five days after he suffered that nagging oblique strain in his eighth start of the season. The Orioles had lost six of their previous eight games before Wednesday and had slipped 5 ½ games behind the first-place Boston Red Sox. They also had been passed by the streaking Tampa Bay Rays, who suddenly look like they might be — as many predicted in the spring — the team to beat in the AL East.
It wasn't just that Chen tied the Rangers lineup in knots after it had scored 16 runs in the first two games of the series. It was how much he looked like the pitcher who made 32 starts and won 12 games in his first season in the American major leagues. Certainly, that wouldn't make him the No. 1 starter the Orioles supposedly need to go deep into the postseason, but it would give them a very effective left-hander and reduce the number of variables that Showalter has to contend with the rest of the way.
Showalter apparently could see this coming, based on his response when he was asked before Wednesday night's game whether he thought his hitters had been pressing during the past couple of weeks.
"Of course they are, but there's a good pressing and a bad pressing,'' Showalter said. "I don't think it's anything that some real quality starts pitching-wise and making runs matter [won't cure]. Like I said [Tuesday] night, we scored nine runs the last two nights. There should be a 'W' in there somewhere."
Don't misunderstand. Chen isn't going to hoist this team on his talented shoulder and carry it into the promised land, but in the space of seven very impressive innings, he changed the subject from what might be wrong with the Orioles offense to what might soon be right with a pitching staff that has been in flux for most of the season.
He also put the Orioles in position to split this four-game set with the Rangers and carry some momentum into the weekend series against the Toronto Blue Jays.
Under the circumstances, you can't ask for much more than that.
Read more from columnist Peter Schmuck on his blog, "The Schmuck Stops Here" at baltimoresun.com/schmuckblog and listen when he co-hosts "The Week in Review" at noon Fridays on WBAL (1090 AM) and at wbal.com.